Monthly Archives: September 2020

Dungeons Masters Can Make Fake Choices for Players, But Should You?

Eventually, every dungeon master winds up guilty of illusionism: You offer the players a choice that seems to matter, and then rearrange the game world so all the options lead to the same outcome.

An illusionist GM prepares an encounter that pits the characters against an ogre on the road. Then, whether the players take the low road or the high road, they face that same ogre. If they opt to stay home for tea and cakes, the ogre fancies a bite.

426px-Sandys,_Frederick_-_Morgan_le_FayIn the early days of role-playing games, when players tried to beat dungeons and dungeon masters acted as something between referee and adversary, such illusionist deceptions resembled cheating. Chivalry & Sorcery (1978) advised the GM to set out a dungeon’s details in advance so he could “prove them on paper should an incredulous group of players challenge his honesty or fairness.”

As the game changed into a way to engage players in a story, illusionism became a tempting strategy for GMs. Deception appealed to GMs who wished to steer players through a particular story, but also to GMs who needed to prepare a game without preparing for every possibility.

GMs running campaigns aim for three targets: player freedom, world detail, and ease of preparation. Those of us who must keep a day job can only choose two. Illusionism seems like a way to cheat by dropping player freedom while making the players think they remain free. If the players believe their choices count, what does it matter if they don’t?

The ogre encounter seems innocent. Dungeons & Dragons players expect to stumble on monsters, and that ogre could appear on either route as a wandering monster. But what if the players must guess whether the Dread Baron travels the low road or the high road? Do you base the villain’s travel plans on whether your story calls for a showdown today?

Many GMs feel that offering an illusion of choice robs players’ of real control over their characters’ fates, so illusionism is unfair on principle. While writing about illusionism, John Arendt concludes, “The DM is obligated to administer the setting in a way that ensures player choice is meaningful, in accordance with the previously established facts.” Courtney Campbell adds, “I think illusionism is abhorrent in both D&D-style games, and story-based, plot-arc games.”

I admire the principle, but players don’t join your game because they admire your unwavering game theory.

In every RPG session, players sacrifice some of their characters’ freedom for fun. When they join the game, they silently agree to band their PCs together, to cooperate, and to have their PCs award the magic item to whoever rolls highest on the great d20 in the sky.

The price of illusionism comes from another angle. Much of the fun of games come from making interesting choices and then experiencing the consequences. For more, see “How to improve your game by forcing characters into tough choices.”

In a role-playing game, good choices come with enough information to make illusion difficult. The sort of choices that let you easily fake illusionary consequences tend to be dull choices based on scant facts. When you serve players such vague options, they hardly enrich the game. High road or low road? Flip a coin.

If the players must decide whether to travel the low road or the high road, then either choice could lead to the same wandering ogre. But suppose on the low road, the hag Auntie Boil always demands some small, wicked deed of those who travel her swamp. On the high road, frost giants guard an icy pass, but one may owe the party thief a favor. Ogres could wander either route, but now the choice becomes interesting because each road takes the adventure on a different spin.

The best choices lead to consequences too specific to fake with illusion. If the players spurn a town that pleaded for help against raiders, the town burns. If the players betray Lady Redblade, she treats them as enemies.

You could contrive circumstances that spares players from the expected consequences: A storm delays the raiders until the players arrive. Lady Redblade blames a rival for stealing the artifact that the players took for themselves. But whenever a convenient break spares your story from the players’ actions, your game world loses credibility. If players seldom see their actions lead to repercussions, they learn that their actions hardly matter.

Illusionism isn’t a cheat; it’s a compromise. Illusion may save a great encounter or contribute to an impression of freedom, but it bears a price. Whenever you serve an illusion of choice, you miss a chance to offer the sort of real choice that enhances the game.

Should you use to illusionism at your table? The game is yours. Every dungeon master knows the benefit of deception. Now you understand the cost of a lost opportunity. Interesting choices carry a price.

TSR vs. the Internet Part 2—From They Sue Regularly to Open Gaming

In 1994 TSR, the publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, struck two blows aimed at containing fan-created D&D content on the Internet. (See TSR Declares War on the Internet’s D&D Fans.)

First, administrators running servers offering D&D content received email from TSR representative Rob Repp. “On behalf of TSR, Inc. I ask that you examine your public net sites at this time and remove any material which infringes on TSR copyrights.” Because universities hosted most of these sites, the notices led to a quick wave of shutdowns.

Second, TSR insisted that fans who wished to distribute their D&D creations exclusively use a server run by their licensee MPGNet. Fans hated that loss of control, but the real blow came from a disclaimer that TSR demanded fans add to their content.

This item incorporates or is based on or derived from copyrighted material
of TSR, Inc. and may contain trademarks of TSR. The item is made available
by MPGNet under license from TSR, but is not authorized or endorsed by
TSR. The item is for personal use only and may not be published or
distributed except through MPGNet or TSR.

The last line seemed to imply that TSR gained the right to publish or distribute independent creations, and that proved most alarming. “This statement looks more like a release of distribution rights than a disclaimer,” wrote Jim Vassilakos.

Sean K. Reynolds would soon become TSR’s online coordinator. In an interview, he explains the roots of TSR’s online policy. “They came up with the idea that if you express something in D&D format, it belongs to TSR because TSR owns D&D.“

Jim Vassilakos took the full force of TSR’s legal assault. He edited The Guildsman, a roleplaying fanzine with D&D-related content, and then he distributed it online from a server named greyhawk at Stanford University.

Before legal notices forced the Stanford server to shut down, TSR’s affiliate MPGNet had copied the Guildsman archive, transferred it to their servers, and added the disclaimer, all without permission. This led Vassilakos to write MPGNet head Rob Miracle.

“You (MPGN and TSR) have basically taken a vast quantity of material from Greyhawk, including the six Guildsman magazines which total over 400 printed pages, and proclaimed yourselves as the sole distributor of this material. I think that, given this situation, you should be able to see clearly enough why people are upset at this unexpected turn of events. In any case, my contributors are telling me that they’d prefer that their material not be kept at MPGN under this sort of condition.”

Rob Miracle wrote a conciliatory response. “First, let me say that we took over Greyhawk so that it wouldn’t die. We had lost other great sites and didn’t want to lose probably the best site. I will do whatever you wish, because they are your files. Just let me know.”

Of course this dispute just samples the furor raging in the Internet’s community of D&D fans. Fueled by distrust of TSR, people considered ways the company could benefit from seizing control of so much online content.

Many creators feared that TSR would bundle their creations in a CD-ROM or start charging for online access. Did the disclaimer enable the company to reap profits without paying anyone for their work? The more conspiracy-minded worried that TSR would simply gather content and pull the plug, eliminating a source of competition. Certainly some folks sought free and illegal online copies of D&D products. The crackdown made such sources harder to hide.

TSR claimed good intentions. “I can tell you that the intent we had when we started working with MPGNet was not to derive revenue from that site,” Rob Repp wrote. “I find it unlikely in the extreme that a company with as sharp a legal team as ours is going to simply grab someone’s stuff and publish it without permission. I don’t think that’s lawful, and I’m certain the legal people would mention it during some meeting or other.”

Rob Miracle explained, “MPGNet has nothing to gain from offering this service other than the satisfaction that there is a net home for gaming material.”

Meanwhile, many wondered if TSR really needed to take such steps to defend their intellectual property. Some fans did extensive legal research. TSR cited drow as a monster of their own creation. Gary took the name from folklore, but few of the specifics. (See The Stories Behind D&D’s Iconic Monsters.) So did TSR own the drow? Perhaps not, but they surely owned mind flayers, beholders, carrion crawlers and other monsters Wizards of the Coast now reserves as D&D’s product identity. TSR couldn’t copyright game mechanics, but could they copyright terms like armor class and hit dice? TSR felt their steps were required.

Many gamers saw TSR’s defense of their copyrights and trademarks as overreaching. If fans saw it, then TSRs lawyers saw it too, and fans supposed that revealed a bad-faith strategy working toward a hidden agenda. Benjamin Lake wrote, “Imagine how much cash TSR would have if every copy of Ultima (for example) was taxed for using the concept of levels and experience points.”

Perhaps Rob Miracle began regretting his company’s affiliation. “There is no conspiracy. MPGNet has no hidden agendas and as far as we know, TSR does not have a hidden agenda.”

During the furor, one fan asked, “Does TSR regard it as illegal to play AD&D with a dozen or so people over the Net, as opposed to playing it with a dozen or so people in my living room?”

“We certainly do not,” Repp explained before adding a catch. “Saving up all the moves, however, and republishing them as a separate work would probably be an infringement.” Such a recounting of a D&D game resembles an actual play podcast or even a streaming game. This interpretation would forbid the content powering much of D&D’s current surge in popularity.

Rob Repp got tired of bearing the Internet backlash, and tired of fans pointing out how TSR fought copyright infringement now, but had used balrogs and hobbits without permission 20 years earlier when the company operated from Gary’s basement. Sean K. Reynolds explained Repp’s plight. “To put it bluntly, he pissed off a lot of people with his attitude and posts. Not all of it was his fault. TSR’s online policy was draconian and unproductive. Rob was just tasked with enforcing it, but not being a gamer he couldn’t relate to the fans’ side of the story.”

In May 1995, Repp posted to the AD&D mailing list announcing a job opening for an online coordinator at TSR. The job’s responsibilities included managing TSR’s web presence and AOL site. Reynolds saw the listing. “I felt I could do a better job of it than he was; he was making people mad when he didn’t have to.”

Reynolds got the job. Two days later, Repp quit. Reynolds landed in charge of the online policy that he had argued against. “My first act was to go to the lawyer and say, ‘What can we do about this? We have this policy. I think it’s kind of unreasonable—actually very unreasonable.’ We stopped doing the cease-and-desist letters threatening people posting their own monsters or whatever, and started focusing on people doing actual copyright infringement. Without actually changing the TSR policy, we just kind of mitigated our enforcement of the policy.”

Reynolds served as online coordinator for 2 years. “A lot of people badmouthed me for a long time because of that policy, but while I was TSR’s online coordinator not one website was shut down for D&D material that wasn’t an actual copyright violation (such as posting scans of books or artwork). Nobody was ever bothered by me because of fan material on their site.” In 1997, Wizards of the Coast bought TSR. “They had a much more benign and open idea of how to handle this sort of thing.“

The new owners of D&D would completely rethink the status of fan creations. D&D team head Ryan Dancey led this change of direction. He credits open source software for inspiring the change. In open source, programmers contribute free code that enhances the utility of software like Linux, the operating system that now powers the Internet. Through open source, the Internet community proved the value of their freely-distributed creations.

Dancey saw fan contributions as an enhancement to the D&D community that strengthened the game’s place in the market. Support from fans and other companies for D&D leads more people to play D&D. Dancey writes, “This is a feedback cycle—the more effective the support is, the more people play D&D. The more people play D&D, the more effective the support is.” Besides, the numbers showed that the D&D business made money selling core books. Why not let fans and other companies bear some weight of supporting the game with low-profit adventures, settings, and other add-ons?

Dancey’s thinking led to the introduction of the Open Gaming License and the d20 License. Using these licenses gamers and gaming companies could create and distribute products compatible with the D&D rules, and not just on the internet, but in stores.

At a glance, this new spirit of sharing seems like a complete reversal, but TSR’s disclaimer that allowed sharing on MPGnet hints at the modern licenses. Like the OGL license, the old disclaimer set a legal basis for sharing content. Unlike the disclaimer though, the OGL is irrevocable. If you place content under that license, it is perpetually under it. This leaves little room for a hidden agenda. In an echo of MPGNet, gamers can offer creations that use D&D’s brand, unique monsters, and worlds on a specific site, the Dungeon Masters Guild. This time though, gamers can sell their products. And presumably the DMs guild has an Internet link even faster than 1.5Mbps.

Related:
The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice
The Media Furor that Introduced the “Bizarre Intellectual Game” of Dungeons & Dragons to America

1994: TSR Declares War on the Internet’s D&D Fans

Nowadays Shannon Appelcline writes about the history of the roleplaying game business and writes most of the product histories on the Dungeon Masters Guild. In 1994, he administered a computer at Berkeley University that served fan-created content for the indie Ars Magica roleplaying game. That role landed Appelcline an email from Dungeons & Dragons publisher TSR claiming that his site offered unauthorized D&D content and demanding that he unplug. “There were no—absolutely zero—Dungeons & Dragons files on the website,” says Appelcline. “They were looking at a roleplaying site not related to D&D and they sent one of their nastygrams.”

The demand enraged him. “I suspect I wasn’t vulgar in saying what they could do with their letter, but I’m sure I was thinking it and I was certainly very angry.

“Overall if you think about the Internet at that time being focused on [educational domains], you can see that you had a lot of anti-establishment people on the Internet and so none of us liked TSR that much. Everyone wrote T$R for example. Now they’re sending these nasty letters for legal rights that they probably don’t have. The letter I wrote [in response] said, ‘Not only do we not have any files related to D&D on our site, but we never would. I would rather poke my eye out with a stick before doing anything to help you.’ That phrase was genuinely absolutely, in the letter.”

TSR sent similar cease-and-desist demands to sites across the Internet. Most of the targets actually served fan-created content devoted to D&D. A few delivered files that clearly infringed on TSR’s copyrights.

All these notices bore the name of manager Rob Repp whose job leading TSR’s Digital Products Group included things like managing TSR’s presence on America Online and heading the development of CD-ROM products. No other management employees boasted any Internet experience at all, so Repp drew the chore of leading TSR’s Internet presence. TSR had just gained their first email address a few months earlier. Despite working for TSR, Repp wasn’t a gamer, so he failed to distinguish content for Ars Magica from D&D. But he can’t be dismissed as just a suit. He’s also credited with the border art on many of TSR’s Planescape products.

Repp first appeared on the Internet in 1994 when he replied to a request for an illegal copy of the Monsterous Compendiaum posted on the rec.games.frp USENET newsgroup.

>Anyone know of an ftp site that has a monstrous compendium available for
>download? Thanks in advance. (Please email to j...@thepoint.com).


I'd be interested in knowing about this one myself. :)

Rob Repp                           | InterNet: tsrinc@aol.com
Manager, Digital Projects Group    | InterNet: mobius@mercury.mcs.com
TSR, Inc.                          | CompuServe: 76217,761
__________________________________ | GEnie: TSR.Online  AOL: TSR Inc
All opinions are my own, not TSR's | 414-248-3625    Fax 414-248-0389

Despite a TSR’s employee’s interest, someone still posted a link to a file server distributing the infringing content.

The budding Internet created fears beyond such blatant infringement. Repp explained, “When gamers begin sharing their creations with the public, whether for profit or not, they are infringing our rights. If we don’t make an earnest attempt to prevent this infringement of our trademarks and copyrights, our ownership of these extremely valuable assets may be jeopardized.”

Companies that fail to defend their trademarks can lose them. Just ask the original makers of cellophane, escalators, and trampolines. However, D&D fans and TSR would debate how much copyright law justified the company’s cease-and-desist notices.

In an official statement, TSR told fans interested in distributing content to avoid infringing on D&D by making the content generic. “If the party encounters a hydra, let the GM look up the stats for the hydra in the game system he is using. Don’t set the adventures in a TSR world. Create your own or use one from history or legend. Don’t use monsters, spells, etc. that were created by TSR. Create and name your own. Draw on history, legend or reality. Even spell their actual names backward for uniqueness.”

For fans who insisted on sharing content for D&D, Repp promised a solution. “Sometime very soon, we’re going to create a place where gamers can legally upload and share their creations, including modules, stories and software. We are definitely interested in fostering goodwill among customers. Eventually, we want gamers to be able to turn to TSR in cyberspace as easily as they do in a hobby store.”

“IBM PC Computer” by Accretion Disc is licensed with CC BY 2.0.

None of Repp’s goodwill cushioned the impact of the nastygrams.

Unlike Appelcline, Trent A. Fisher had set up a server that actually held D&D-related content: a collection of the best of the rec.games.frp discussion group. “I was pretty angry about all of this. I read most everything that went onto the site, and I never would have permitted anything which outright copied TSR materials. Apparently, someone in TSR leadership must have felt that any fan-generated work represented competition that had to be stamped out.”

Jim Vassilakos also edited D&D-related content in his fanzine The Guildsman . He served it from Stanford University. At the time, he wrote, “Many gamers actually dislike TSR, and they have since before TSR was even on the Internet. I think a large part of the reason has to do with the way TSR deals with competition.”

That distrust of TSR extended to much of D&D’s fan community. Critics pointed to TSR’s lawsuits against competitors. When Game Designers Workshop dared to publish founder Gary Gygax’s latest roleplaying game, TSR sued. When Mayfair Games published generic content “suitable for use with Dungeons & Dragons,” TSR sued. Gamers joked that TSR stood for “they sue regularly.” TSR’s takeover of wargame publisher SPI also troubled gamers. Partly because TSR stiffed lifetime subscribers to SPI’s magazines. Also because most of SPI’s design staff quit when faced with working at TSR. Overall, gamers saw TSR as a company using a dominant market position and deep pockets to bully fans and competitors.

Nonetheless, TSR fulfilled its promise to provide a place where gamers could share their creations. In a time when the company lacked a web presence, the company found a host for fan-created content.

On September 6, 1994, TSR announced that fans could legally upload content to a server hosted by an outfit called the Multi-player Gaming Network or MPGNet.

TSR is pleased to announce a licensed Internet FTP file server. MPGNet's
site (ftp to ftp.mpgn.com) will carry a license that allows your creations
to be shared with the world via the Internet. 

MPGNet called itself “a business that provides low-cost, interactive multiple player gaming entertainment,” but it seemed like a small enterprise. Company head Rob Miracle suggested users cope with his site’s low bandwidth by connecting during working hours when few online gamers were active. (He did promise to upgrade MPGN to a T1 line in 1995. In 1994, a network business dreamed of a 1.44 MB per second T1 connection. Now houses in my neighborhood get a download speed of 360Mps and a upload speed of 25Mps.)

TSR’s takedown of gamers’ file servers had inflamed fans, but the invitation to share content on MPGNet included a requirement that provoked rage.

In order to distribute your texts, software and message digests via this server,
you must include the following disclaimer:

_______________________________________________________________________________
This item incorporates or is based on or derived from copyrighted material
of TSR, Inc. and may contain trademarks of TSR. The item is made available
by MPGNet under license from TSR, but is not authorized or endorsed by
TSR. The item is for personal use only and may not be published or
distributed except through MPGNet or TSR.
_______________________________________________________________________________

The last line seemed to imply that TSR gained the right to publish or distribute people’s creations, and that proved most alarming.

Next: TSR vs. the Internet—From They Sue Regularly to Open Gaming

Related: The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods

Turning a Monster Into a Puzzle

In first-edition Dungeons & Dragons, clay golems could only be hit by magical bludgeoning weapons. Also, only three spells, move earth, disintegrate, and earthquake, affected these monsters. As foes, they worked as puzzles. “Our DM ran the golem encounter from Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure this way,” recalls @Stoltzken. “It was terrifying. The key to making it work for us was we had fair warning in the initial round that this was as much a puzzle as a fight. First round was minor damage. From there on though…”

Poul Anderson’s novel Three Hearts and Three Lions (1961) inspired D&D’s regenerating trolls. To the hero of the novel—and to early D&D players unfamiliar with the book—the problem of killing a troll makes a puzzle.

Now everyone knows how to kill a troll, and that shows one problem with puzzle monsters such as trolls and golems. Players learn the solutions. Early in D&D’s history, co-creator Gary Gygax figured that only dungeon masters would read the books of treasures and monsters. He assumed players would learn the game’s secrets in play. In practice, even kids who couldn’t find a group studied the Monster Manual. At every table, someone knew every monster’s vulnerability.

That problem invites obvious solutions: Invent new monsters, vary existing monsters with new immunities, or add secret enchantments that block familiar attacks. @StaffandBranch writes, “I ran a rock, paper, scissors, encounter where the rock golem could only be defeated by wood, the treant by metal weapon, and the storm of swords by stone or rocks.”

Recent editions of D&D rarely add strong immunities to monsters. The third-edition rogue reveals why. That edition’s designers gave rogues a sneak attack ability limited by numerous monsters immune to sneak attacks. Creatures like oozes lack vulnerable spots, so those limitations made sense. But players saw too many encounters where rogues could not use their signature ability. Since then, D&D’s designers have steered toward avoiding immunities that hamper characters and lead players to feel-bad moments.

Mainly though, the blame for driving puzzle monsters from D&D belongs to foolhardy players. When did you last see players run from a fight? In early D&D games, players expected to find monsters too strong to defeat. Fragile characters made retreat a common option. Often now, players who face a creature that seems immune to attack just try hitting harder. (See The Story of the Impossible Luck that Leads D&D Parties to Keep Facing Threats They Can Beat.) When players don’t know the key to beating a puzzle monster, such encounters can lead to total party kills.

Still, puzzle monsters can enrich D&D and many players love them. Creatures with secret vulnerability make D&D games feel more mythical. They let players work their brains while their characters flaunt their power.

For some monsters, players can find the key to victory during battle. Perhaps pushing that clay golem into running water dissolves the thing. Often puzzle monsters must be trapped rather than killed. I’m reminded of Spider-Man trapping the Sandman in a vacuum cleaner.

Other puzzle monsters might require gathering lore and engaging with the game world. A hunt for a lich’s phylactery can work like that. Some might spur a quest for the artifacts that enable a monster’s defeat. Curse of Strahd works like that.

Puzzle monsters work best in games seeded with rumors of the creature’s invincibility and hints to the creature’s vulnerability. For players particularly slow to spot clues, devise a plan B enabling an escape or rescue. I once put a puzzle-based golem on a ledge over water. If the players took too much damage before spotting the creature’s invulnerability, the jump offered an easy escape. I didn’t even fill the water with sharks. Sometimes I’m such a cupcake.

The adventure Deep Carbon Observatory by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess features my favorite puzzle villain. Spoilers follow. In the adventure, a rescued child whispers in an character’s ear.

There was a bad old woman who lived in the corn.
Only children knew that she was real.
She had seven souls and couldn’t die the same way twice.
So all the children poisoned her.
Then they stabbed her and smashed her and sliced her
and burnt her and drowned her.
And then they threw her in the well.
That’s Six And Seven Makes All…

To slay the witch, the players need to find a means of death the children never used.

What’s your favorite puzzle monster?